In the aftermath of recent tragedies, many of us are asking what we can do to prevent future instances of violence. Most of the discussion has centered around guns, but strengthening America’s mental health system is just as important.
A strong mental health system is good for those in treatment, for those in recovery, and for the communities (and taxpayers) who live among them.
Our discussion after tragedies such as the one in Newtown, Conn., can’t be about who to blame. Too often, we mistake blame for resolution. In terms of actually solving the problem at hand, blame contributes nothing and is often just a distraction. Instead, we need to focus on taking action.
For starters, communities should fight against shortsighted cuts to mental health services. Without mental health care, individuals in need will lose the support that helps them find and maintain employment, maintain housing and manage their physical and mental health. This results in increased costs to communities in terms of inappropriate imprisonments and hospitalizations, and dependence on welfare.
Community mental health centers are not exactly in it for the money. They operate on razor-thin budgets cobbled together from Medicaid, Medicare, federal grants and state funding. These organizations are operated by and for our community members, and they cannot care for our communities if support continues to be cut.
We must also increase the behavioral health system’s ability to provide care in our communities. Coming before Congress is the “Excellence in Mental Health Act,” which would secure a steady funding stream for qualified providers of community-based mental health services. This act would go a long way toward providing the mental health infrastructure our nation needs.
Finally, the president has specifically called for training in Mental Health First Aid, a program that will help teachers and other school staff to recognize the signs of mental health disorders in young people and connect them to appropriate care, and, if necessary, to safely de-escalate crisis situations.
Severe mental illness often appears for the first time when a person is in their late teens or early 20s when many people are in high school or college, where staff aren’t necessarily prepared to recognize signs. This is a common-sense initiative that could save a lot of heartache and resources by stopping health crises before they happen.
Medically, we now know that treatment works. We know that people with mental health disorders can recover. As responsible community members, we can and should lobby our leaders for a strong behavioral health system.